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OPINION

Under fire from Russia, Ukrainian morale remains high

During a recent trip to Kyiv, the author spoke with residents to gauge their willingness to continue resisting.

An apartment building in Irpin, Ukraine. Heavily damaged during the fight to retake the town in April, it serves as evidence of the terrible toll that Ukrainian civilians have suffered at the hands of Russia.Adrian Bonenberger

My wife’s parents fled Kyiv in February. Ukrainian forces had decimated a Russian special operations unit just blocks from their apartment and they decided to decamp to a calmer suburb to the south. Fearing for their safety, we brought them to the United States in March.

But by the summer, Kyiv was quieter. Russian forces had been swept back into Belarus, and they had not yet begun indiscriminately firing rockets and flying Iranian drones into major cities. Going back didn’t seem risky, and so, at the end of July, they returned.

We visited them in late October. The ostensible purpose of the trip was to make sure they had enough food, potable water, and batteries should electricity and water be knocked out by Russian forces. We pleaded with them to return to the United States but, in spite of the hardship and the looming winter, they refused. They were determined not to abandon their homeland again. A choice had been made.

My in-laws are some of the people that Russian President Vladimir Putin was referring to when he promised to “denazify” Ukraine — to destroy the nation and its people, to erase its language. They are, of course, not Nazis — indeed, they have largely positive memories of life as part of the USSR and and my wife’s grandfather took part in the Great Patriotic War against Hitler’s Germany. They view themselves as Ukrainian and love their country enough to stay there during wartime — enough, in Putin’s mind, to make them Nazis.

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During the trip, I visited several places in and around Kyiv and spoke with people in an effort to better understand the strength and resilience of my wife’s parents — where it came from and how far it would take the embattled nation and its people.

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My first stop was a half hour to the north of Kyiv by car, Antonov Airport, also known as Hostomel Airport, used primarily for freight and aircraft research and development. The site of the first battle of Russia’s invasion, the airport still bore numerous scars of fierce fighting. The battalion commander in charge of its defense, Vitaly Rudenko, told me that his unit’s veterans had been sent to the east and that the remaining soldiers were not well equipped or well trained.

Vitaly Rudenko, of Ukraine’s military, was one of the only leaders with combat experience on the ground when Russian paratroopers tried to seize Hostomel Airport on Feb. 24. His quick thinking and the tenacious resistance of soldiers he mobilized to defend the airport thwarted Russia’s hopes of swiftly seizing Kyiv.Adrian Bonenberger

Rudenko had training, though — he’d fought against Russia in 2014-15, during its earlier invasion of Crimea and Ukraine’s East. During the defense of the airport in February, he sent his soldiers to hasty positions, where they fought tenaciously “until we ran out of ammunition and had to withdraw.” He said his unit shot down two helicopters and killed as many as 80 Russian soldiers. Hostomel Airport fell to Russia in the next few days, but Ukraine’s stiff resistance bought precious time for other units to mobilize and prepare. By the time Russian forces secured it, they had lost the element of surprise and the airport was no longer of strategic value.

Destroyed Russian military technical vehicles, lost during the fighting in February to retain Hostomel Airport.Adrian Bonenberger

Like many mid- and senior-level officers and veteran soldiers in Ukraine’s military, Rudenko’s experience fighting Russia in 2014-15 gave him confidence that its military could be beaten. It steeled him for the fight and helped prepare him for the worst-case scenario currently unfolding on Ukraine’s territory.

This confidence is commonplace among Ukrainians. From Lviv to Kramatorsk, from Chernihiv to Odesa, in a nation that has been at war since 2014 (2013, if one counts the Euromaidan “revolution of dignity”), fundraising networks and groups of like-minded patriots have formed the backbone of a popular resistance against Russia’s invasion. Overseas, churches like St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Church of New Haven and diaspora groups like Razom for Ukraine have sent tons of aid in the form of food, clothes, medical equipment, and other humanitarian goods. An armada of Ukrainian volunteers bring the supplies to distribution points, then forward them to hospitals, towns, and military units.

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Individuals pitch in, too. My wife and I had each carried an extra suitcase when we went to Kyiv. One was full of medical supplies from an orthopedic surgeon to a colleague. The other included a helmet and body armor for a recently mobilized soldier, the brother of a friend.

“This was one of the lessons we learned in 2014,” said Yehor Cherniev, a member of Ukraine’s Parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, and a veteran of Ukraine’s military. “Even fighting with one hand tied behind our back and without any help from Europe, we were able to stop Russia, and push them back in some places. The whole country came together to support that effort. This time we have help from Europe and the US.”

The remains of one of two Russian helicopters brought down by Ukraine’s military while defending Hostomel Airport during its initial defense.Adrian Bonenberger

That confidence can be seen in many areas, from the military, to volunteer organizations dedicated to fundraising for and equipping Ukraine’s military, to workers repairing damaged electrical infrastructure. After passing through Hostomel, we drove to Irpin, where we observed a half-dozen work crews repairing damaged buildings — replacing windows, fixing holes.

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The roots of this movement extend deeper than 2014, though 2014 certainly nourished it. “Our society is not structured like Russia’s, which resembles a pyramid, from the top down. Ukraine has a grass-roots society, where power moves from the bottom up. The resistance to Russia’s invasion is natural to us,” said Volodymyr Yermolenko, head of PEN Ukraine and a prominent philosopher.

Residential buildings in Irpin, damaged during the fighting between Russia and Ukraine during the spring. Russia’s invasion in February led to a temporary occupation that was reversed in April. Ukrainian units liberating the area said they found evidence of war crimes and executions of civilians.Adrian Bonenberger

Yermolenko said that Putin helped or stimulated the natural appetite for resistance among some Ukrainians through his universal threat against the country and its people. “Part of what encouraged Ukrainians to fight was the belligerent statements of Putin about the destruction of Ukrainian identity,” he said. Russia’s “scorched earth” attacks and ethnic cleansing of Ukraine’s northern suburbs failed to dampen Ukrainian spirits and, if anything, intensified them.

“In 2014, and today, Ukrainians have learned to be with their country,” said Andriy Kulykov, a journalist with Hromadske Radio. “Not only in the time of imminent victory but also in the very, very hard time of temporary defeat, of a looming threat. It is not easy, but it is necessary.”

A commercial building near the train station in downtown Kyiv, damaged by Russian missiles in mid-October.Adrian Bonenberger

This stoicism and fortitude, and the commitment Ukrainians have to defending their identities, has been expressed in its approach to schooling. Banned under Imperial Russian rule and again under the control of the USSR, the formal instruction of Ukrainian language and history is now commonplace throughout Ukraine.

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This is one reason schools have been a target for Russian rockets and artillery, and children were a commonplace sight in Kyiv’s metro stations. “Russia’s war hasn’t only been against us as people, but against our schools. This targeting of schools has been deliberate and follows the same logic they’ve used during the past 300 years of various forms of occupation,” said Anna Novosad, former minister of education for Ukraine.

Now, Novosad is a cofounder of savED, a charitable foundation dedicated to rebuilding and rehabilitating schools destroyed by Russia during the war. She, too, sees evidence of Ukrainian resilience even in communities harrowed by occupation. “Nobody waits for victory. Nobody waits for that blessed day when the war stops to start the recovery,” she said. “We have to start with restoring basic services and education is one.”

The wreck of the Antonov AN-225 “Mriya” — once the world’s largest cargo airplane, destroyed during fighting between Russian and Ukrainian forces in late February. Antonov Airport employees vowed to build a new, upgraded "Mriya" to replace the one that was ruined.Adrian Bonenberger

Hostomel Airport returned to Ukrainian control in April. The wreck of a Ukrainian symbol — the Antonov AN-225 “Mriya,” once the largest airplane in the world — laid in three pieces on the tarmac of the airport. Its body had been dismembered: part of the cabin burned, the rear half intact but charred, and its ruined front turned out and to the side like the neckless skull of a leviathan. Workers crawled over its scorched and sagging wings, salvaging what they could.

Rather than keeping the wreck as a memorial to the outrage of Russia’s invasion, Mriya, as the Ukrainians call the cargo plane, may become another rebuilding project for Ukrainians — in this case, Ukrainian employees of Antonov State Enterprise, a subsidiary of Ukraine’s state-owned defense industry.

“We will build a second Mriya, an improvement on the first,” said Volodymyr Smus, head of air traffic control for Hostomel Airport. Whether that is actually possible remains to be seen. But the aspiration was clear. “When the war is over,” he continued, “we will make things better than they were before.”

Like everyone, my wife’s parents want the war to be over and can’t understand why Russia insists on prosecuting a war against pensioners like themselves. They are welcome in our home, and there are programs in the United States that would make it easy to keep them here, safe from harm. I think they resent the terms on which they’re being told to leave Ukraine — if it were a matter of moving here during peace, that would be acceptable. But moving because Russia has made war on their identity seems to offend some part of them that holds their home and their country in high esteem — it is, perhaps, a question of honor and dignity.

Adrian Bonenberger is a US Army veteran and a writer who lived in Ukraine between 2015 and 2017.